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Science explained: Why finding a cure for breast cancer is more complicated than it sounds

Our goal is that by 2030 there will be zero deaths from breast cancer. This is a goal that would see more women (and men) living longer with breast cancer, and empower them with a greater quality of life.

While more women are surviving an initial diagnosis of breast cancer — nine out of 10 women are alive five years after their diagnosis —once breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is thought that the number of women surviving five years is only around one-in-five.1 So, we know that there is still much work to be done.

We are proud to raise and grant funds exclusively for research, because we believe research is the most effective way to end breast cancer. We’re committed to funding innovative research — from finding better ways to detect breast cancer earlier, to figuring out what causes breast cancer cells to spread, so we can work out how to stop it.

But we know that no single big breakthrough, discovery or new treatment will be the cure for all breast cancers.

That’s because not all breast cancer tumours are the same. In fact, there are quite a few sub-types of breast cancer, but they are broadly broken into four groups based on their molecular signature, or lack thereof.

Tumour cells have certain hormones and protein receptors which are naturally found in women’s bodies, and knowing what sub-type of breast cancer they are dealing with allows doctors to determine the specific needs of each individual, and determine a treatment plan according to the molecular make-up of their tumour. For example, about 70 per cent of breast cancers test positive for hormone receptors which means treatments can target those receptors and effectively reduce or kill the cancer cells.

As a result of breakthrough discoveries, we have seen the treatments for breast cancer evolve of from a one-size-fits-all approach, to a highly sophisticated precision medicine. However, at this stage, there are still types of breast cancer for which receptors and proteins have not yet been identified and so effective treatments are yet to be developed. Research continues to play an essential role in closing this gap in our knowledge of the disease.

Understanding the complexity and differences between tumours, what they respond to and what they don’t is why the National Breast Cancer Foundation doesn’t talk about a ‘cure’. Each tumour is different, and each patient is different, so treatment for each will be different too.

  1. American Cancer Society. Breast cancer survival rates by stage.